Sounds Heard: Gino Robair—I, Norton: An Opera in Real Time
Gino Robair – “The Committee of Vigilance”
from I, Norton
In any era where phenomena such as the Tea Party movement seem more like a circus than a bonafide political call to action, the story of a 19th-century San Franciscan man who dressed in regal garb and claimed he was the Emperor of the United States feels more timely than ever. Originally from London, Joshua Norton settled in the Bay Area in 1849 and in 1859 (one year before the election of Abraham Lincoln) declared himself Emperor in a series of proclamations and letters distributed to various newspapers (which actually reprinted them!). Although some of the edicts he made during his “reign” were inconsequential, such as the abolition of the Democratic and Republican parties as well as the U.S. Congress, the more-than-likely mentally unstable Norton was a local celebrity who remained popular within the community and the press throughout his life. He succeeded in peacefully quelling an anti-Chinese riot, was saluted by the police whenever he walked by, and the monetary currency he issued was actually honored in restaurants and other establishments he frequented. But in 1880, America’s first and only emperor collapsed on a street corner and died before a carriage could arrive to take him to a hospital. His funeral was attended by approximately 30,000 people, more than 10 percent of the population of San Francisco at that time.
Seems like the perfect subject for an opera, doesn’t it? Thus I, Norton by San Francisco-based (where else?) composer/improviser/percussionist/electronic maven Gino Robair. But what Robair has done is far more than simply retell Norton’s operatic life story through music. Robair’s self-described “opera in real time” is a brand new kind of music theatre platform that is every bit as wild and eccentric as its subject. Eschewing a linear narrative, I, Norton uses the last day of Norton’s life as a catalyst for memories. Norton’s various speeches, derived from both allegedly real and false contemporaneous newspaper reprints of his proclamations, as well as his letters to Minnie Wakeman, a 16-year-old woman Norton hoped to marry and make Empress, serve as the libretto which is alternately sung, spoken, and electronically processed. Since it is non-linear, the various modules that Robair conceived can be performed in any order, in whole, or only in part. Its instrumentation is unspecified and its score is an open form kit, including graphic notation, syllable charts, and traditionally notated pieces, which essentially guides a free improvisation by any group of people, including non-musicians. According to the composer, it was “designed to get artists—including actors, musicians, dancers, painters, videographers, set builders, and so forth—together in a shared space of improvised creativity.” And therefore, “anyone can mount a performance of I, Norton, anywhere, with any amount of rehearsal time.”
As a result, no two performances will ever be alike, which makes the present CD recording of I, Norton merely one of many possible interpretations of the work. To get a full understanding of what Robair’s aims are, it is ideal to experience as many versions of I, Norton as possible. Luckily there are several performances available online which indeed are quite different from each other. A staged performance featuring Tom Duff as Norton I, which took place on September 19, 2009, at the Brava Theater as part of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival ’09, and has been posted to YouTube, features a surreal all-electronic score with Chris Brown, Kristin Miltner, and Wobbly doing live sampling. A “reading” of the “opera in progress” at Oakland’s 21 Grand Gallery from February 1, 2006, however, creates marvelously frenetic chaos with an orchestra of 40 Bay Area improvisers performing mostly on Western classical instruments with banjo, musical saw, and prepared piano as well as Japanese shakuhachi and koto thrown in along with lots of percussion.
The performance on the CD, which also features Duff as Norton plus Aurora Josephson as the hapless Miss Wakeman, happily combines both acoustic and electronic realms which makes for fascinating listening from start to finish. From the moment the recording begins, the listener is instantly transported into a strange new world that is unlike anything else in the history of opera: The first track begins with heavy breathing that morphs into a sea of voices chattering in a large room, which then gradually builds into what sounds like a riot before the “music” proper begins, almost two minutes in, with the crashing of various gongs. The slow, almost dirge-like chorales in the nearly half-hour-long third track come across as a bizarre marriage of Bach and Cage number pieces. One of the most striking passages is the mostly electronic mad scene, “The Committee of Vigilance,” which recounts Norton’s quelling of a riot. By the end of this crazy opera, if you can keep up with it, Norton emerges as something of a tragic hero whose crusades for justice were ultimately more sincere than today’s media posturings.